Unlocking the potential significance of hidden museum collections
Dr Dan Hicks, Curator of Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, worked with the British Museum to develop a new model for realising the public value of undisplayed museum collections. Together they have made objects hidden away for more than a century in the storerooms of the Pitt Rivers Museum accessible to the entire world.
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In his ESRC IAA-funded knowledge exchange project, Dr Dan Hicks, Curator of Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, worked with the British Museum to develop a new model for realising the public value of undisplayed museum collections. By working with archaeologists, museum curators and others in the heritage sector, Dr Hicks and his team reconnected archaeological objects with the sites, landscapes and communities from which they were collected.
Most museum objects are kept in storerooms, unseen by the public. How to unlock the potential significance of such hidden collections is one of the principal challenges facing museums today. The challenge lies at the heart of the sector’s ability to justify the public value of caring for collections that cannot be publicly displayed. The situation is perhaps most serious for archaeological collections, since they represent the largest element of the unstudied objects that gather dust in every UK museum, including the Pitt-Rivers.
As part of an earlier AHRC-funded research project, Excavating Pitt-Rivers, led by Dr Hicks, more than 10,000 archaeological objects collected and excavated by General Pitt-Rivers from across England during the 1860s and 1870s were documented, photographed and published in the museum’s online database. Alongside primary documentation, this project significantly expanded the public profile and understanding of this material.
With funding from Oxford University’s ESRC IAA, Dr Hicks and his team researched the precise geographical locations where these objects came from, some 265 sites from Kent to Cumbria and from the City of London to Cornwall. Then in partnership with the British Museum, the data from the Pitt Rivers Museum database was transferred to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), making them accessible to anyone around the world. A gazetteer describing objects was also developed, which was used to create a digital map of the sites and locations. In the future, a fully interactive map of the find-spots is planned by the British Museum.
In this way, they have made objects hidden away for more than a century in the storerooms of the Pitt Rivers Museum accessible to the entire world. This project has laid foundations for further research on the English archaeological collections held in museums, and for the unlocking of the museum sector as a resource for understanding archaeology in the wider landscape.
Dan Hicks is Associate Professor in the School of Archaeology and Curator of Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum.